Apparel Contract Decorator Partnerships Series, Part 1: Boost Business With a Sales-Focused Mindset
While some promo distributors see more dollar signs when they can control the costs and turnaround times on their projects, plenty of others prefer to keep their eyes on their sales and allow the experts to do the technical work of apparel decoration. In this three-part series on partnering with apparel contract decorators, we're covering the benefits of partnering with a decorator, how distributors and decorators are working together on apparel projects, and how to get the most out of your decorator relationships. You're reading part 1. Click here for part 2 or here for part 3.
Qais (pronounced “Case”) Arabo built his apparel decoration business from the ground up—actually, from a 96-square-foot mall kiosk in 1995 to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse decked out with a four-head Tajima embroidery machine, a four-station M&R manual press, an eight-station Anatol automatic press, and a wide-format printer for banners and stickers by 2016. His sales had soared, but in the summer of 2019, he sold all of it except a second-hand heat press he bought for $50. It wasn’t because he gave up on his Knoxville, Tennessee-based company, Classic Print Co. Quite the opposite, actually.
A customer for whom he decorated blank goods repeatedly encouraged Arabo to use his business model of outsourcing decoration. Arabo thought the idea was ridiculous, but as he kept circling back to it, he began to see it differently. He compared it to rideshare companies and online marketplaces for vacation lodging where the company gets a portion of the sale for connecting a passenger to a driver or a traveler to lodging. For decoration, he can serve as the middleman to connect end-buyers to both blank goods suppliers and contract decorators.
“My town that I live in is now saturated with screen printers—people doing it professionally and/or trying to be professional out of their garage,” he said. “I live in a town that now has close to 30 or more printers. Back in the day, it was me and [a] couple of other big guys in town, so it was nice.”
Arabo did take precautions in walking away from in-house decoration. He drove around and met with local contract decorators to develop necessary relationships. He ended up relying on three companies. His No. 1 specializes in traditional screen print and his No. 2, formerly a direct competitor, does more specialized screen printing and uses water-based inks. He estimates that the pair completes 90% of his work, with his No. 3 rounding out the rest with a particular focus on embroidery (though his No. 1 gets some embroidery jobs, too). Arabo admits selling the equipment and giving up his large storefront and warehouse was scary, but he has no regrets. “Let me tell you, it was the best freaking decision I ever made,” he said.
This was nine months before COVID-19 shutdowns started. Arabo was nervous about the switch then, but it ended up coming at just the right time. Two of his now-decorators were affected by the pandemic, both shutting down for a time when an employee tested positive for COVID. And, of course, Arabo is well aware that there are some businesses shut down permanently as a result of the pandemic. That could have been him.
“And I think we beat that curve right there by going online,” Arabo said. “None of my clients have said, ‘Oh you don’t have a shop. I don’t want to place an order with you.’ They’ve asked me, ‘Hey, where are you?’ and I said, ‘We’re doing everything virtual. Everything is online or I can come visit you now,’ which they love.”
He’s now investing money formerly used to pay leases for his building and equipment to hire sales and customer service reps to expand his business, particularly by growing his licensing sales for local universities and sororities.
And Arabo isn’t alone. Distributors sometimes opt to bring decoration in-house, but with that comes building leases, equipment loans, more employees on the payroll, material costs, equipment maintenance and a general investment that may or may not be returned. There are some good reasons to go this route: better control of turnaround times (i.e., faster) and costs (i.e., lower).
However, leaning on a contract decorator has one major perk—the distributor can focus on selling while relying on contract decorators who know a thing or two about decorating apparel already.
Think about how many education sessions and trainings you’ve taken in your career as a promotional products distributor, and even how much time you’ve spent learning about new products. Now consider how much time it takes to learn about the intricacies of screen printing, embroidery, direct-to-garment, heat transfer and maybe a few other decoration methods. New technologies are constantly coming out, so you have to stay informed on those as well as government regulations regarding printing, and be able to hire skilled laborers if you don’t plan to do it yourself.
Aside from no longer having to factor in overhead and other extraneous costs, Arabo even finds determining product costs to be easier when working from a vendor’s contract pricing list.
“I think some people have the mentality of, if they bought their own machines, ‘Oh, well, that’s $2 or $3 I can keep in my pocket. Why would I want to contract it out?’” he said. “Well, the truth is that money is going to go toward your employees and then the cost of the machine and the overhead and all that. So are you really saving money when you’re purchasing the machine [yourself] and doing it?”
Tim Pipp, owner of Beeze Tees Screen Printing, with storefronts in Keene and Manchester, N.H., and a production facility just outside its original Keene location, built his business four years ago. The hybrid decorator both sells to promotional products distributors and has its own accounts, so it has its own pains of balancing sales and decorating. Additionally, skilled positions, like screen printers, remain difficult to fill—especially in today’s economy, as one of three Beeze Tees’ screen printer jobs remains unfilled.
“But if you’re really good at sales, if you’re really good at turning customers into lifelong customers, then do you really want to be behind a press or an embroidery machine or heat press, getting these products out when you could be on the phone or you could be in your car or behind a computer selling?” Pipp asked.
For distributors like Crissy Manwaring, business development manager for Austin, Texas-based Boundless, the answer is “no.”
“I could potentially acquire those skills, but is that the best use of my time?” she said. “Or should I spend my time consulting with the clients and really focusing on what we do best, which is providing the creative solutions, engaging with the clients on what they’re trying to accomplish, bringing on the decoration partners that can do these complex multilevel, mixed-media presentations, and then partnering with them to do what they do best, so that we’re all able to give the finished product the best possible chance of success by leveraging everyone’s expertise and individual passions along the way?”
Instead of overseeing a decoration business, Arabo now focuses his time on visiting clients, many of whom are local. This was a surprise to his clients at first, and it exposed some new sales opportunities.
“I really enjoy now going out and visiting my clients and seeing what they do,” he said. “... With that being said, if you see something around their office, now you can upsell. If you see that, hey, they have these ... [items] in their display that they never thought that I did, you can hit them up on that. ‘Hey, I see you guys have this here. By the way, we make those signs or we can get those for you. Or, we make this or that or we can get that.’ So, it opened up some extra selling points.”
Outsourcing opens up a lot of possibilities, too. Manwaring noted both the high level of decoration she has come to expect along with some shipping savings that can result from strategic decorator selection.
“And we like being able to outsource, because not only do you have a bigger footprint and people that specialize in unique decoration methods, but you’re able to provide the best possible customer service experience when you’re able to decorate close to point of distribution or close to point of inventory. So if all of the goods are near an alphabroder or SanMar warehouse, and you can decorate with a decorator that is a pickup to one of those factories, you’re going to be able to save on shipping and also save time because they could get the product fast, same day.”
Want to learn more about apparel decoration? This year’s PRINTING United Expo is happening Oct. 6 to 8 in Orlando with a new space dedicated to all things apparel. The Apparel Zone will showcase the latest technology and techniques in garment decoration, and the trendiest products in the promo apparel market. Each attendee will also be able to choose one of four shirt designs and watch as it’s decorated on the spot with screen print or direct-to-garment equipment—and then keep the final product. Exhibitors include Delta Apparel, Epson, GSG, Kornit, M&R, Mimaki, Monti Antonio, Nazdar, OmniPrint, Roland, SanMar, Stahls’ and Vastex. Click here for more information or to register.